On the first day of each school year, I pull out a laminated story from The Sacramento Bee. The picture shows a boy in a life vest and the story covers safety on the river. My tanned students, fresh from summer, eye the paper and pass it around. Then I tell my stories.
Many years ago my father took me aside to show me a small clipping from the paper. A young girl drowned in the American River. Her last name was Brown, and I sat behind her the prior year in school. She tripped into an underwater hole and was overcome by the currents. She died on a beautiful July day playing with her family and friends.
My parents drilled river safety into us with one rule: Don’t swim in the rivers. They were lifelong Sacramentans and had their own stories of river death.
Years later, one of my students died in the Sacramento River. He was being chased by a group of boys who were angry that he’d flirted with one of their girlfriends. He jumped into the river to evade them and drowned.
I teach immigrants – children from Laos, Vietnam, Mexico and other warmer climates. Equally dangerous rivers flow in these countries, but they are often not as cold, as deep or as fast moving as ours. Many of my students don’t know how to swim, let alone understand icy mountain water. Pushed by blazing summer heat, the young and invincible will wade into the rivers. But in my silent classroom, wide-eyed students listen to my stories of dangerous undertows, snags and Sierra snow runoff.
Sadly, these stories are not new to some students. To keep their interest, one of my fall assignments is making a game. Students experiment with writing rules, and planning paths and strategies.
Xiong turned in a two-sided paper, handmade dice with pencil point dots and no instructions. The paper was covered with dozens of numbered spaces, arrows, ladders and pictures. The setting was Laos and the drawings depicted each of the perils he lived through before coming to America. There were villages with huts and gardens, men with guns, burning houses, mountains, rivers and an airplane that could go either to happy California with sun and dancing children or to a camp with barbed wire. You rolled the dice to begin your journey. The river square showed a person drowning.
Quickly I changed the tone from healthy fear to education: Learn how to swim. I smile and pass out papers that cheerfully announce swim lessons at the local pools. Look at these free life-jacket stations. I flash pictures of the jackets from Howe Avenue and Discovery Park. Tell your folks my stories, and don’t swim in the rivers. Swim in pools.
I’ll never know if I have saved a life. Teachers never really know how lessons will follow students. They might be instantly forgotten or resurrected much later. But if a child brings lessons home, parents listen and information is passed on.
August is around the corner and teachers will be thinking of their new lesson plans. In the flurry of the first school days, teach a lesson that might save a life. Tell the stories you know, and then, come May, tell the stories again. Act flustered. Did I tell you this at the beginning of school? Yes, well, it must have been so important I have to repeat it. Summer’s coming, and the rivers will tempt you, but …
Ellen Cochrane is a teacher in the Elk Grove Unified School District and a Sacramento City Unified school board trustee.